When we spend our hard earned money on fine jewelry, we trust that something advertised as gold or silver, actually is. We know the marks are there, but much like our great-great grandparents trusted their local jeweler, we simply trust that things are what they are advertised to be. After all, there must be a law against selling fakes! Actually, there is, but we’ll get to that a little later.
Gold and silver purity marks are now common symbols of trust in the industry. Th0se marks are not always mandatory, and until the 1970s, those for gold were not tightly defined. This means if you are buying or selling older jewelry, understanding the history of purity marks is especially important.
Jewelry Marking in the United States
For hundreds of years, reputable jewelers have placed markings on jewelry to indicate the maker, quality, and purity of the piece. You can find gold purity marks going back for centuries in Europe. The US, being a much younger country than those on the other side of the pond, had very few standards for marking precious metals. Those who purchased jewelry simply went to a reputable jeweler whose entire business rested on their reputation for honesty and quality. As for coins, we simply assumed that those issues by our government were real.
As the country grew and people began to travel thousands of miles to populate new cities and towns, the simplicity and security of buying from a known jeweler was lost. A man buying a ring for his bride-to-be might be doing so in a town that was nothing but tumbleweeds a few years before. The land of opportunity for the honest, was equally so for the dishonest. Importers flocked to to sell their items in growing cities around the country. With few laws in place around precious metals, counterfeit items made of precious metals were found more frequently. This was particularly true of gold and silver coins. By the end of the 19th century, the need for regulation to protect buyers was apparent.
In 1906, the US congress passed the National Gold and Silver Marking Act. Also known as the Jeweler’s Liability Act, this legislation made it illegal to misrepresent the purity of an item made from gold or silver in packaging, labeling or markings. It’s important to note that it has never been a requirement to put a purity mark on all products made with gold and silver. You can still make and sell jewelry today without putting any markings on it. The law simply makes it illegal to mismark gold and silver. Confused yet? Hang in there with me a little longer.
The original 1906 act made it illegal to sell jewelry in the US that had false gold or silver purity marks. Remember those markings I mentioned before? This is the law that made them trustworthy. The act is about 4,00 words long, but I’ve broken it down into the most important points. As of June 1907:
- Sterling silver was legally defined as 92.5% (hence the 925 stamp)
- Items stamped gold (14K, etc.) must be within a half karat of that purity (so a 13.5K ring could be stamped 14K, but a 13K ring could not)
- Silver and gold plated items could not be stamped with 925, sterling or a K mark
- Other silver items have to be 90% pure silver (think coins, candlesticks and tea sets)
Essentially, the goal of the law was to make counterfeiting illegal and restore trust in US-made gold and silver products. The 1906 law was most stringent for silver, which made up the bulk of US coinage at the time. If you want to know more about the Gold and Silver Marking Act, click here to read a more in-depth summary.
Wait, my Grandma’s ring might not be 14K gold?
The vast majority of jewelry items are just what the stamp says they are, but it really depends on when it was made and the jeweler who made it. If the
ring was made before 1906 (so maybe your great-great grandma’s ring), there was no law against falsely marking a piece of gold jewelry, so technically, it could be made of a lesser purity of gold, or another material with gold plating.
If the ring was made in the US after june 1907, rest assured that 14K mark is pretty close. From 1907 to 1981, you can expect jewelry to be within that 1/2 karat mark. For the data junkies out there, that’s no more than 2% less than a full 14K, or 19/1000ths.
Remember that before we trusted the law to punish the dishonest, we had other ways to discourage bad behavior. Jewelers stayed in business only if their customers trusted them. If the local jewelry store sold fakes, they would quickly go out of business or be run out of town!
What happened with gold and silver purity marks in 1981?
From 1970 to 1976, the price of gold increased more than 400%, largely due to a list of political and financial factors that requires a doctorate economics to understand (I don’t have one so I won’t even try). In 1976 an amendment was passed changing the allowable variance in gold purity from 21/1000ths to 3/1000ths. While I’ve found no direct evidence linking the increase in gold price with the change in the law, it make sense that people became more picky about their gold as the price went up. The law didn’t take effect until late 1981, so jewelry made between 1907 and 1981 could legally be up to a half karat lower purity than it’s mark.
As for silver, the tolerances defined in 1906 have remained the same for the last 110 years.
I have a ring stamped 14KP? Is is gold plated?
No, in fact 14KP stands for 14 Karat Plumb, meaning exactly. The term “plumb,” as applied to gold, became a “P” mark on jewelry around the same time the markings act was amended in the early 1970’s. With more attention on the purity of gold and skyrocketing prices, jewelers sought to show their products as a good value and of high quality. Typically seen right after a purity mark, it appeared as KP on many pieces of jewelry manufactured in the 1970’s. A KP mark means the item is exactly the karatage stamped, essentially confirming compliance with the 1976 markings act. If you have a ring with a KP mark, it’s a pretty good bet it was made in the 1970’s.
Purity Marks Requirements
As I mentioned above, it’s important to note that the act doesn’t require purity marks on gold and silver jewelry, unless it’s being transported across state or international lines for the purpose of selling it as a specific karat of jewelry. This means you may encounter a ring that was made at a small jewelry shop for a local customer that was never marked. Items brought here from another country by the owner (not for resale), or items made before 1907 are also often unmarked.
Some pieces custom crafted in the United States today lack gold purity marks. This is in part because a 1961 amendment of the markings act states jewelry with a purity mark must also include a manufacturer’s trademark. Small, independent jewelers often lack a trademark, and without it, they can’t legally stamp a K or 925 mark. This doesn’t mean they aren’t responsible for the quality of their pieces. It’s still illegal to mark gold or silver items incorrectly, or to misrepresent the purity of an item you are selling. Rest assured that your jeweler has no desire to go to jail and would never knowingly sell you a ring stamped 14K that is really only 10K.
What about all those other marks, like 10KGF or 18KGE?
That takes us into a little more complicated territory. The short answer is that with the exception of items marked KP, any other letters after the K mark mean there is very little gold in your jewelry. With the exception of GF or “Gold-filled,” most methods of adding a layer of gold to a base metal leave less than 1/100th of the stated gold. For example, a 1-ounce metal brooch stamped 18KGE has only fractions of a gram of gold in it.
Gold-filled, usually seen as “14KGF” or “1/20th 12K Gold Filled,” means the piece of jewelry has a layer of gold on top of another metal, equivalent to 1/2oth of the total weight of the item, or 5%. So if you have that 1-ounce brooch, but it’s stamped 12KGF, you have 1/20th of an ounce of 12K gold, which as of the writing of this article, amounts to about $30.
How do US standards for markings line up with the rest of the world?
In other parts of the world, fine jewelers were in the habit of marking their jewelry and adhering to high standards long before 1906. In fact, jewelers in Europe were far more specific with their markings, using numbers to reflect percentages rather than karat marks. For example, a 14K gold ring made in Europe 100 years ago will likely have a “585” stamp. This means the gold is 58.5% pure. If you divide 14 by 24 (24K being 100% gold), you get .585. Some jewelry items made and sold overseas did not have any purity markings because it was not required in the country of origin.
Being the freedom loving country that we are, there are still things we prefer not to let the government control. In the case of jewelry marks, this means we still lack the standardization seen in countries like England, Denmark and Italy. We are still young and we might get there someday. Remember, the difference between Europeans and Americans – Europeans think 100 miles is a long way and Americans think 100 years is a long time.
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